History Lesson: The debate over school choice, argues Stanford University professor David Tyack in the American Prospect (January/February), has been "relentlessly ahistorical, as if amnesia were a virtue."
So Tyack, the author (with Larry Cuban) of the 1995 book Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform, offers some perspective on the matter. Choice, he points out, goes back to the 19th century, when Americans "chose" public education for their children. "The animating ideology of the common school," he writes, "proclaimed that the public good could best be served by public, not private, education, because the moral and civic training of the young was the concern of all citizens, not just parents." Public education has predominated ever since, with about 10 percent of families opting for private schools.
Conservatives argue that private schools represent a marketplace driven by, as Tyack puts it, "the individual tastes of consumers (families)." Some parents, he admits, "have indeed shopped around in a marketplace of schools for the best academic product at a price they could pay; some prosperous families have sought to educate their children with elite social peers. But these were hardly the majority."
Parents who elect to send their children to religious schools, for instance, do so more out of duty than choice.
Further, Tyack points out that public schools--high schools in particular--offer students more choices than ever in the form of curricular offerings. "One might think that advocates of school choice would applaud this marketplace within the school," Tyack writes, "but generally they do not." One reason is that an increase in the number of courses has often led to low academic standard, since students tend to pick easy courses when given the chance.
So why, then, Tyack asks, should choice of schools lead to high academic achievement and greater equality? "A free-for-all competition for a scarce resource--fine schools--between families that start out highly unequal in information, influence, and resources hardly seems likely to benefit the have-nots, though it might be attractive to the haves."
The case for school choice, Tyack admits, has a "classic simplicity" that is hard to rebut. It goes like this: "If parents have vouchers and can choose the schools their children attend, there will be competition in the educational marketplace, and that will produce a quality product (effective learning, measured as high test scores). . . . But will choices about schools be made chiefly on criteria that reflect effective learning? If choices about high school courses are any indication, many students and their parents may have other bases for their preferences."
Vol. 10, Issue 4, Page 21Published in Print: January 1, 1999, as Clippings